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I will reiterate: our view is that the candidate selection process falls outside the ambit of EU law and, as such, the equal treatment directive does not impose limits on the measures that political parties can consider. With that in mind, I firmly believe that the Bill should remain permissive and set no limits.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also referred to geographical areas. I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall that that was something of a red herring. Although we would not want to underestimate the fact that people may wish to select a candidate who has a local link, that is only one of many factors that parties will want to take into account. The hon. Gentleman made the very valid point that he does not fall within the remit of the amendment because he lives just outside his constituency.
Mr. Lansley: I am sorry to be tedious and intervene again, but both the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and the Minister are wrong. The amendment is perfectly clear. It refers to a connection with a specific geographical area; it does not state that candidates would have to live within a specific geographical area and it is only one factor that might be taken into account in considering a candidate's personal situation. I would be grateful if the Minister would not misrepresent the amendment even if he objects to it.
Mr. Raynsford: I was simply picking up the points that were forcefully argued by the hon. Gentleman. Many of his hon. Friends referred to the merits of parties being able to select people who lived within certain areas. If he is now saying that his amendment would not achieve that effect, what is its purpose if it would allow someone to use the obscure reference that they happened to have passed through the constituency of South Cambridgeshire in 1937 to claim a local connection with the area?
Mr. Tyler: In order to avoid further misrepresentation and confusion, let me say that I understood the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. However, this discussion illustrates how dangerous it would be to go down this path. It happens that my ancestors arrived in Cornwall in 1066. Is that a connection with the constituency?
Mr. Tyler: Yes, I can. Is it more significant than the fact that I was not born there and I live 500 yd outside my constituency? Adding extra burdens to legislation will inevitably lead us to such confusion while keeping it simple will, I hope, keep the legal bills cheap.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Member for North Cornwall, who has told us a most interesting fact about his own ancestry, makes an extremely sound point and I could not put it better. The amendment would add an unnecessary complication which would add all sorts of arguments over interpretation and ambiguity to what is in essence a simple Bill.
Mrs. May: I merely wish to point out yet again that the Minister's suggestion that the amendment stands or falls on the issue of locality and whether somebody has a relationship with a specific geographical area is a complete misreading and misinterpretation of the amendment. As he has already acknowledged, the amendment is specific in that it would introduce into the Bill wording that has been used in the European Court of Justice cases which specifically say that positive action can be taken in certain areas, provided that there is an assessment that takes account of a specific personal situation. That is what matters. A relationship with a specific geographical area is merely one factor that could, but would not necessarily, be included in that assessment.
Mr. Raynsford: I understand clearly what the hon. Lady is saying, but I put it to her ever so gently that Conservative Members have placed considerable emphasis on the geographic issue and that is why I have tried to respond to it. I take her point that the wording relates to cases that have been heard before the European Court of Justice, but I reiterate that all those cases related to employment. It is our contention that employment is a different issue from candidate selection as quite different criteria apply. That is the key point.
The amendment also refers to personal situations. We had an interesting debate in Committee in which the hon. Lady quite rightly and very graphically described the kind of problems that arise in the selection process when women are asked inappropriate questions.
Introducing the concept of personal situations risks legitimising exactly the undesirable questions that she was at pains to criticise in Committee. If it is legitimate to delve into personal situations, how can it be wrong for parties to start asking awkward questions about women's availability to carry out certain functions or the impact of family responsibilities on their ability to discharge their parliamentary responsibilities or other such entirely inappropriate questions which the hon. Lady and other members of the Committee said made it very difficult in some cases for women candidates to be selected?
Mr. Raynsford: I have to put it to the hon. Gentleman, however, that if he put that concept into the Bill, it would be impossible to prevent the kind of malpractice that he and his colleagues rightly criticised in Committee.
For the following reasons, therefore, I believe that the amendment is inappropriate. It is unnecessary because it misconstrues the impact of the cases in the European Court of Justice that hon. Members have quoted. It unnecessarily complicates a Bill which is clear and simple and it introduces potentially undesirable elements which could work against the Bill's very purpose. We do not believe the amendment is necessary or desirable and I trust that the House will reject it.
Mr. Lansley: I take entirely the Minister's point that complicating the Bill should be avoided in all possible circumstances. If it can be simple, so much the better, therefore in this context everything rests on the validity or otherwise of his assertion that the equal treatment directive and the application of European Union law will not impact on candidate selection and that, effectively, EU law will not apply to the activities of political parties. I hope that he is right. It would be reasonable for the Government, and subsequently political parties, to try to sustain that in courts and to try to keep the EU out of the legislation. I suspect that he will be wrong and that, as in so many of these issues, European legislation will creep in.
I do not accept the Minister's other arguments about introducing undesirable features. The amendment would have done precisely what it was intended to do and in a targeted fashion, but as the Labour party appears set on allowing itself the opportunity of all-women short lists, there is little benefit in pressing the amendment to a Division. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall was generous enough to say, I hope that by raising the issues in this way, we will at least have exposed to the House and perhaps to a wider public that what might otherwise seem a simple Bill raises important issues that people should examine carefully. They should understand the nature of what is intended by the legislation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
We have heard some interesting and useful contributions during the debate, and there were many more in Committee. Women make up just under one fifth of hon. Members, and we all agree that that is not acceptable in 2001.
Recent research by the Fawcett Society confirms that women face discrimination in the selection process. I shall not go into detail, as we heard enough evidence in previous debates. The lack of women in politics, however,
Since 1996, when the employment tribunal in the Jepson case ruled that the Labour party policy of all-women shortlists was illegal, parties have been wary of using positive measures to reduce gender inequality. The Bill is designed to remedy that problem and to give parties the confidence to use positive measures again.
I repeat that the Government believe that all political parties must decide for themselves how to make use of this permissive Bill. We believe that it would be prudent for all parties to take legal advice about the measures that they propose to adopt before they put them into practice. That is not a sign that we lack confidence in the Bill. Offering that advice is a measure of the Government's prudence, and I hope that it will be accepted in that spirit.
Political parties will have different views about how best to increase women's representation. The Bill gives them the freedom to decide the right way to proceed, but they must take responsibility for their decisions.
I am delighted that there is broad commitment to the Bill's principles. Contributions to the Bill's consideration have been constructive, and its central tenet has not been questioned. No one doubts that something desperately needs to be done to reduce the imbalance in the numbers of men and women elected.
I hope that the Bill will redress a fundamental imbalance and go some way towards making our democracy more representative, effective and reflective of the population at large. In the end, however, that will depend on outcome and what happens at the ballot box. We shall be able to judge the Bill's success only when we see what happens in elections to this House, local government, the European Parliament and the devolved Assemblies in the future.
I hope that the measures taken by all political parties will increase substantially the number of women candidates, and that the electorate as a result will be in a position to elect many more women to Parliament and other elected assemblies in this country.